Youth I

film 3 of 4

People on Sunday

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 31, 2015

What a breath of multiply fresh air! This is a stupendous piece of work, a patently and very positively amateur assembly of casual and superficial and glancing interactions that add up in the end to great poignancy and beauty. Part of that has to do with the period, and the inevitable and probably overdetermined associations we have therewith. Here’s this bustling city, here are these attractive and carefree young people, and here, just outside of the frame and the actual intent of the piece, come the Nazis and the destruction of the world. That’s probably inevitable, and it’s probably fair. But what’s so refreshing, so true and important here is that we remember and realize that there’s more to the 20’s than roaring, or Weimar crisis and degradation, more to the 30’s than Depression, more to Germany than the twilight of the Gods. We remember and realize that there’s more to any time than the biggest headlines of that time.

Look at the authenticities (of dress, of posture, of gesture, of recreation and expression and interaction), so timely and particular, so timeless and telling, so fresh and yet so familiar.  If in some ways this collective production is a more human, humane Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, then in other more significant ways, Berlin and the urban and modernity have nothing to do with it. This is the mythological, Ovidian Golden Age, except for the fact that these kids have to go back to work on Monday.

Note, or pursue that Ovidian connection. Much of the film is made up of an extended, timeless sylvan interlude—!!—which connects to another deeper and more ancient thing. It’s what’s most potentially troubling, most obviously exquisite thing about the film, which is its unabashed, unembarrassed, almost amoral sensuality. In many ways People on Sunday resembles Jean Renoir’s similarly plotted, similarly shimmering A Day in the Country. Renoir’s is a dappled and sun-kissed film that begins with aspiration, peaks in conflicted ardency, and ends in melancholy and even bitterness. (That’s all from de Maupassant.) When you think about it, that is really the standard attitude toward this kind of gamboling narrative, whether you’re of the Sunday School sensibility or more cavalier about it all. “Beneath the city two hearts beat/Soul engines running through a night so tender/In a bedroom locked/In whispers of soft refusal/And then surrender…” We want to, and often we do, but the retributions or reproaches that follow!

Is it the involvement of Billy Wilder that makes this one so different, in the sensual sense? Whatever the source, this film has none of that usual soul searching or repenting. We have a triangular situation, and we surely have the freshest, funniest pan away and pan back sex-euphemism in film history. Is that all there is? But beyond that there’s an almost shocking lack of regret or apology. That’s all there is to it, and what of it? And the young woman agrees! Why so unrepentant?

The thesis seems to be that these are happy, healthy youths, happy and healthy mammals, even. If they’re just a bit heartless then they’re also deeply and healthily human about it all. It’s The Who, or Robbie Burns, or all the young swains and their young paramours who have yearned for each other. The seeds are bursting, the springs are seeping—lay down beside me, love ain’t for keeping. Here they are, in the springtime of the year and in the springtime of their lives. Biology will out. These youths don’t just yearn, they follow through. If the lack of apology is kind of shocking, then it’s also rather refreshing.

So People On Sunday is aggressively unjudgmental, but there is plenty of auto-critique. It isn’t exactly escapist, but it’s about people who are always trying to escape. In this the film is authentically youthful, which is also to say authentically self-centered and anti-productive and narcissistic. They should really grow up! (Look at this Annie character, who misses this entire miraculous outing, and in fact doesn’t even manage to get out of bed.) The conclusion suggests that the whole roundelay of vain industry for the sake of glancing recreation and romance is about to start again. Pretty absurd—Absurd, more like—and awful, if you want, or if you add on fifteen years.

But if the critique is there, it’s definitely not the main point of the exercise. More than anything, this is photo-enraptured stuff, skillfully contrived but still effortlessly anthropological. There’s what has to be an August Sander-derived sequence in the middle that features a really striking parade of portraits. (Had the perpetators seens a similar though more decadent sequence in Von Sternberg’s Underworld? Did Abbas Kiarostami, as he made The Traveler, refer to this?) The leads are actors, after a fashion, but the people on the margins aren’t marginal at all. Cinema direct—nothing more important, more abiding than regular folk in their regular pursuits.